Eventually it will happen. Something will go wrong, mistakes will be made and customers will be upset.
When it happens, the right thing to do is own the mistake and apologize to anyone affected. In fact, a genuine apology is more effective in service recovery than compensation alone. The Carey School of Business found that only 37% of upset customers were satisfied when offered something in return for the issue. However, if the business said sorry on top of the credit, satisfaction increased to 74%.
Saying sorry is the most effective, cheapest way to turn around a bad customer experience. Because it’s so effective, knowing how to apologize correctly is a key skill for customer service professionals.
The best apologies are all similar in format. Research proves it – a 2016 study on effective apologies found that the best apologies were empathetic, specific and offered an explanation. The more thorough a apology is, the better! In this post, we break down how to develop the most effective customer service apology.
At the end of this post, we’ve included an annotated apology letter sample that you can use to write your own! (Although we hope you don’t have to use it very often…)
The first step of a good customer service apology is to know what you’re apologizing for. Everyone on the receiving end of an apology wants, first and foremost, to be understood.
“I’m sorry you’re upset” is not a good example of understanding the problem.
Put yourself in the customer’s shoes and determine how the issue affected them. Was it time consuming? Did they lose money? Have they lost trust in your product? Being specific about the problem will let your customer know you understand the full implications of the issue.
The real issue might not always appear on the surface. For example, say a reporting system broke down. Your customer might write in irate about not receiving their weekly reports. But the real reason for their anger isn’t the actual missing report – it’s because they had to go to their weekly board meeting empty handed. Their boss depends on them, like they depend on you, and you’ve broken the chain of trust. Because your product broke down, your customer suffers professionally.
Thinking through the context for your customer’s anger will help you write a more genuine and thorough apology. You might not include all of your reasoning in the follow up email, but understanding the real reason your customer is upset is the first part of a great customer service apology.
- I understand how important this is to your workflow
- I can definitely see how frustrating this bug would be
- I would be so annoyed in the same situation
Now that you understand how your actions affected the customer, it’s time to say the all important word: Sorry. You actually have to say it, don’t just imply it.
Make your sorry personal. “We apologize for the inconvenience” is one of the most overused phrases in customer service. I’d recommend avoiding it when creating your own customer service apology.
There’s no secret here. Just say “I’m sorry” and follow it with the reason for your apology.
- I’m sorry there’s been a delay in our response
- I’m sorry my dog ate your tulips
- I apologize for not calculating the monthly cost correctly
- I’m really sorry I made your coffee decaf
Offer an Explanation
Some customers really want to understand what went wrong in the first place. It helps ease the concerns that it might happen again.
This isn’t a place to list excuses. If they are upset about a longer reply time, the explanation isn’t “we were really busy”. The full explanation is “we didn’t accurately predict our staffing needs.” Take ownership and admit where mistakes were made.
To find the root cause of the issue, turn to the 5 Whys. Here’s an example:
We didn’t respond quickly enough to their email. Why?
- Because we were really busy on Monday. Why?
- Because we didn’t have enough people on staff. Why?
- Because we’ve had an increase in volume. Why?
- Because we’ve launched a new promotion this month. Aha!
Don’t belabour the issue. Offer a brief explanation of the cause, and then move on.
Fix the Problem
An apology is only effective if you resolve the original problem. Like all emotional phrases, it loses it’s meaning the more times it’s said. That goes double for any customer service apology.
If there’s an outage every week, it doesn’t matter how perfect your customer service apology is. Customers don’t want to deal with frequent downtime!
After expressing empathy, apologizing and explaining what went wrong, state the specific steps you’re taking to resolve the issue. If you need to follow up later, let customers know when you’ll have a more complete resolution, and when you’ll contact them again.
If you make any promises about following up or resolutions, don’t break them! Fixing the problem is what makes an apology genuine.
Offer compensation (maybe)
Sometimes customers deserve a refund or service credit. If they weren’t able to use your service for an extended amount of time, or if you have SLAs or a guarantee built into your terms of service, proactively offer a credit.
It’s a small token of your appreciation for their patience. Offering it proactively creates even more good will.
Learn from your mistakes
If you feel like you have to apologize to customer for a negative experience in every second reply, there might be a bigger problem. Your support team shouldn’t be a shield for ongoing issues.
Keep a record of customers who needed an apology and the reason for it. At the end of the month, if you’re seeing an ongoing trend, it’s worth bringing up to the rest of the company.
Wrap it up
At the end of the conversation, it’s worth repeating a genuine statement of apology to wrap up.
“Again, I’m really sorry this happened. It’s not our usual standard. If there’s anything else I can help address, please do let me know.”
Keep the conversation open. If your customer has further unresolved concerns, they will feel welcome to bring them up.
Our fool-proof sample apology
First of all, I want to apologize for the experience you’ve had getting your account set up. It’s not our usual standard and I understand how frustrating this delay must be. I’m sorry you’ve had to spend so much time on this.
Over the last week we’ve been implementing a new onboarding system to help make account set up easier. Due to an unexpected increase in signups, we’ve seen some unfortunate side-effects, such as the ones you’ve experienced. I’ve gone through your account and ensured that there’s no further issues remaining.
I’ve also waived the first month’s subscription fee, so you’re all ready to get started!
Again, I’m sorry it took us so long to get this point! I look forward to providing a much better experience in the months to come.
If you have any further questions or concerns, please let me know. I’m here to help!